"Children living in the Lake Harriet district were dusting off their toboggans today and getting them ready for the advent of the first real snowfall in Minneapolis,” reads an article from The Minneapolis Journal in December 1913. “The park board’s new toboggan chute at West 43rd Street and Lake Harriet Boulevard has now been completed and needs only snow and ice to make it usable."
Sure, we have the City of Lakes Loppet Winter Festival that starts the first weekend of February. The Loppet brings together thousands of cross country skiers, snowshoers, winter cyclists, and spectators who share the common love for winter sports and activities. In general, Minneapolis and its parks system is a hot spot for winter sports. Our parks are filled with ice rinks, sledding hills, and lakes to walk across (when the ice is sturdy).
But those lucky enough to live in Minneapolis in the 1910s, they had a toboggan slide to go down.
Tobogganing became popularized after a few Canadian cities and Duluth opened city-operated slides to the public in the early 1900s to much fanfare. Hoping to capture the popularity of this new pastime, Minneapolis planned to unveil their very own toboggan slide to the public.
In the fall of 1912, Park Board employees began to scope out suitable locations to build a man-made slide.
Although smaller toboggan slides were created at Powderhorn Park and along the Mississippi River bluffs, the largest and most popular slide was built on a high bluff overlooking the western shore of Lake Harriet.
The Lake Harriet toboggan slide resembled a wooden roller coaster. Its wood-framed structure began near the intersection of Queen Avenue and Linden Hills Boulevard. Packed with snow, the chute’s frame spanned over and above Lake Harriet Parkway before settling on the ice below at Lake Harriet.
This toboggan slide opened to the public on January 3, 1913. The slide was incredibly popular in its first winter. Scores of children would line up with their sleds and toboggans. Some sleds were large enough to accommodate five children at a time.
More daring kiddos would grease the rails of their sleds for an even faster ride. With enough speed, the slide hurdled tobogganers from the base of the chute several hundred feet towards the center of the lake’s icy surface.
Two policemen were dispatched to Lake Harriet daily to oversee the slide operations. One officer was placed at the top of the slide to make sure that the children maintained an orderly line and used the slide in 90-second intervals for safety. Another officer was placed at a warming house near the base of the slide to ensure that children returned their toboggans to the top of the slide for the next group.
In its first year of operation, estimates suggest the slide was ridden over 10,000 times before its closure and dismantling in March of 1913. The wooden slide was dismantled before the ice thawed on Lake Harriet to avoid having the structure collapse into the thawing lake.
After the park board received a ton of requests to make a new slide for the next winter, they decided to bring the slide back.
At first, the Park Board planned to erect two toboggan slides at Lake Harriet. This plan sought to operate one slide at Queen Avenue, with a second slide on the Lynnhurst side of the lake at the intersection of Lake Harriet Parkway and West 46th Street. The idea was that tobogganers could circuit up and down the two toboggan chutes to reduce lines and congestion.
As exciting as two toboggan slides would be, the building of two separate slides and paying four policemen to chaperone proved too costly. Instead, the park board chose to build a new slide featuring two parallel ice-lined toboggan chutes 125 feet longer and 25 feet taller than the previous year’s slide at Queen Avenue.
The new double-tracked slide opened on January 13, 1914, but not without issue. A few days prior, a warm spell caused the thawing ice underneath the slide’s scaffolding to give way. The frame of the slide fell six feet through the ice, resting on the lakebed below. Park Board officials decided to leave the slide as-is. They said the slide was still structurally sound and the steeper incline would be nothing more than an additional thrill.
The steeper, longer, and faster slide was much more dangerous than the previous year. Paired with the new ice-laden track, reports suggested that toboggans would reach speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour.
Injuries were commonplace at the new slide. In the very first week of operation, one woman was knocked unconscious in a toboggan collision, a young boy broke his leg, and another rider broke her wrist while falling off their toboggan. These injuries were compounded with parents calling for the closure of the dangerous toboggan slide. By February, two of the injured parties sued the park board for damages. As a result, the Park Board dismantled the Lake Harriet toboggan slide after the 1913-14 winter season and the tobogganing craze died out as fast as it was born in Southwest Minneapolis
Although the toboggan slide at Lake Harriet is now a memory of years gone by, snow tubing has taken its place over the last several decades as a safer winter activity. Many parks throughout the Twin Cities including Theodore Wirth, Afton Alps, Buck Hill, and Elm Creek offer tubing complete with lights, tow-ropes, chalets, and hot chocolate at the ready. One thing is certain. I’d pay top dollar to spectate competitive snow tube racing. To the Loppet Foundation: the ball is in your court…